I will write in a day or so more about the meaning of “call,” as I experienced it moving from one church to another . But today, I write about one particular conversation that took place between calls, including that life-changing (for me) advice in the above title.

Joan and I had come upon an unusual year. Our daughter Wendy was graduating from college and getting married, and going into her first full-time job. Son Jim would be graduating from high school and going to college in Maine. The pastor with whom I’d been working (as Associate Pastor) was retiring, and the president of the graduate school where I was teaching resigned to take another position. That same year was our 25th wedding anniversary. Life was full of transitions.

So we thought that year might be a good time to consider a further transition, maybe a move to pastoral ministry in New England somewhere. We were perfectly happy in our two Richmond churches, I hasten to add. Joan was in a good place in more ways than one serving in a large downtown Lutheran Church, one with two pipe organs! And I was very happy with my long-time Richmond congregation, and I think they were happy with me. But…it was quite the year otherwise.

On our way from Virginia to explore Jim’s college in Bar Harbor, we detoured into Massachusetts so I could stop by the Presbytery office there and speak briefly with the Executive, Jane Wick, about the possibility of my finding an appropriate call within Northern New England Presbytery. She reminded me that we had met previously somewhere, and our conversation was off to a good start. Then, I go to the point. “Tell me about the churches in your Presbytery.”

“Well, they are mostly small and rural…”

Before she got very far, I expressed some disappointment. “Well, I don’t know if that would work for us,” I admitted. “We’re both into good church music, for one thing. I’m in a church that has a fine music program, from the choirs to hand bells, even a string quartet made up of members of one family. We even just did a jazz service! And Joan…she’s a professional church musician, a fine organist and choir director,” I explained. And then I stepped in it.

“I just don’t think we’d be happy with a small church music program.” To be honest, I was thinking a wheezing pump organ and rag tag choir. Yes, I stereotyped the rural church. May as well toss in a musty atmosphere and peeling clapboards too.

And then Jane said the words that I have repeated myself countless times since that visit: Now, don’t sell the small church short. And she went on to describe one Vermont church that broke the stereotype. “We have a church that’s open right now that has a good choir, even a good-sized men’s choir, and they have a professional chamber music series with players from Julliard.” I was more than curious. I would later discover two more surprising facts about that church: a nationally-known church organist who played at a major New York City church every Sunday spent several weeks in Vermont each summer and played that church’s organ and directed the choirs; and the church had about 70 members.

Hmmm. And it’s open now? Yes. Too bad, though. Jim was in his senior year in high school and there was no way we could uproot him from the school system, the church, and the neighborhood where he had spent his whole life, with only one year to go before he left for college. Bad timing, Lord.

It turns out that circumstances changed and it was providential that I was later called to serve that small church I once so readily sold short. When I went there, I think the roll showed 69 members. There were close to 20 in the choir, and the majority were men! And once a month, yes, the men’s choir sang. As for the chamber music? It turned out that it wasn’t the church’s program, but Julliard-trained church members produced and hosted a local two-month chamber music series that featured Julliard faculty and alumni and friends.

And indeed, the organist at New York City’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church had a summer home up the road and did play our small pipe organ and direct our summer choir (which, it turns out, was even larger than the regular choir — that comes from being located in a summer vacation wonderland).

As if to emphasize once again that one shouldn’t sell the small church short, a recording engineer who had spent his youthful  summers in that church wanted to preserve the congregational singing he had heard as he grew up there. The whole congregation sang four part harmony (at least!), and the singing was confident and faithful, and as that organist John Weaver had explained to me my first summer there, the interior of the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church was shaped like the inside of a cello, adding acoustic richness to the vocal sound. So, Peter Wilder brought in his digital tape recorder one summer Sunday, and the whole congregation gathered after worship and a dish-to-pass dinner, and recorded two CDs worth of favorite hymns and even Christmas carols! [Those CDs are still available, so leave me a note if you’d like one. I can get one for you wholesale!]

Apart from the music, there were many, many other reasons not to sell that church short, and I’ll cover those in another entry.

Next, however, I revisit some confessions and celebrations related to youth ministry at an earlier church. Some of it isn’t pretty.